Who will save the poor scribe from penury?

From a speech by biographer Michael Holroyd, given at the Wallace Collection, to mark the 125th anniversary of the literary agent AP Watt Ltd

Share

The need for a new breed of business representative arose from the long history of authors' poverty and their apparent inability to help themselves. In
The Vanity of Human Wishes (1748), Samuel Johnson asked his readers to "mark what ills the scholar's life assail: toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail."

The need for a new breed of business representative arose from the long history of authors' poverty and their apparent inability to help themselves. In The Vanity of Human Wishes (1748), Samuel Johnson asked his readers to "mark what ills the scholar's life assail: toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail."

Among most publishers, AP Watt was not popular. If, as authors maintained, Barabbas was a publisher, then the new mercenary agent was, according to publishers, an unrepentant thief. William Heinemann described him as a parasitical middleman of dubious honesty who flourished without qualifications and destroyed the "intimate intercourse between author and publisher".

Watt's clients included Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. But not all writers thought well of him. Conrad likened his soliciting testimonials to the credentials of a Malayan laundryman. Henry James used him briefly because "he appeared eager to undertake me, and I am promised remarkable good results. He takes 10 per cent of what he gets for me, but I am advised that his favourable action more than makes up for this."

Unfortunately it didn't, and Henry James soon turned instead to JB Pinker - a short, compact, round-faced, dapper sphinx of a man who laughed without facial movement and spoke in a hoarse whisper. Pinker was the other great authors' valet of these early years. By the early 20th century he looked after Arnold Bennett and HG Wells, as well as Henry James and Joseph Conrad.

Between the two world wars, though guerrilla activity between agents, authors and publishers persisted, the question of whether a writer should employ an agent was generally settled. Most writers now felt the "relief and comfort" that Henry James had described at having an agent "take all the mercenary and selling side off one's mind".

When I began writing in the late 1950s, I was advised to go to an agent by the Society of Authors. My relationship with AP Watt during the 1960s and 1970s plotted a sensible if unsensational course for me that did not vex publishers too much or come to the notice of the general public. But towards the end of the 1980s, this dramatically changed. For my multi-volume biography of Bernard Shaw, Hilary Rubinstein at AP Watt secured me an advance on royalties of £625,000.

In fact, this lump sum was to be paid to me over a dozen years, and was in effect a middle-age pension of some £40,000 a year which freed me from journalism and lecturing. Writers, on the whole, do not write books for money, but spend money buying time to write books.

I was described in some newspapers as a lottery winner, and in others depicted as an obscenely greedy capitalist who was stealing money from my fellow authors. My post was full of begging and threatening letters, and I became the Martin Amis or Amy Jenkins of the day.

This experience illustrates the great change that has come over the world of books. In the modern competitive publishing industry, no author seems safe without the protection of an agent. Agents now are famous - Andrew Wylie is almost as newsworthy as his star client, Salman Rushdie.

But some things have not changed so much. "Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail." The toil of writing is much the same as it ever was. The want is still there. Despite what you read about the occasional fabulous advance, many writers are obliged to seek help from the Authors' Foundation, a charity run by the Society of Authors to help writers finish their books. Authors' incomes are so erratic that they do not usually have adequate pensions. But thanks to the Royal Literary Fund, which has benefited fantastically from Disney's exploitation of Winnie-the-Pooh, they are no longer heading for the jail.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
 

Election 2015: The big five of British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power